Thursday, December 17, 2009
Forest Service reached a settlement with environmental groups in which the Forest Service agreed to subject future development of oil and gas wells to more thorough scrutiny under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act.
Most of the national forest comprises what are known as "split estates." The surface of the land belongs to the federal government, while 93 percent of the subsurface -- the rights to valuable crude oil and natural gas beneath that forest -- is owned by private citizens.
Those whose livelihoods depend on the oil and gas rights in the 513,325-acre national forest asked McLaughlin to toss out the settlement and require the Forest Service to return the past practice of handling oil and gas-well proposals.
They predicted the Forest Service's review of oil- and gas-drilling plans would proceed at a creeping pace, wreaking financial ruin in an already economically distressed area.
In his ruling, McLaughlin agreed.
"There is substantial evidence that several oil and gas-related businesses that rely upon drilling in the Allegheny National Forest for their livelihood may be forced out of business," he wrote.
He said the Forest Service could meet its obligations to protect the surface of the forest without requiring stringent NEPA reviews of each project.
Fesenmyer said McLaughlin struck the right balance.
"We have always worked with the Forest Service in cooperation as good custodians of the land. At the same time, we were doing what we were legally entitled to do," he said.